Published September 13, 2012
Aches and pains are a fact of life—and when they get really bad, most of us cope with whatever meds the doctor ordered. But when actress Mayim Bialik suffered a severe injury to her hand during a car accident last month, she found a different solution: breathing.
"I used a lot of deep breathing," The Big Bang Theory star told Access Hollywood. "It absolutely is what I used to get me through all stages of this [experience]." The breathing techniques—which she had previously learned to prepare for her natural childbirth—were so effective, she says, that she got through the ordeal without prescription pain meds.
If you've ever been in persistent, mind-numbing pain, you might be rolling your eyes right about now. But focused breathing and meditation, paired with (or instead of) traditional meds, is gaining more and more traction in mainstream medicine as a way to treat a variety of pain—from injuries like Bialik’s to chronic conditions like fibromyalgia.
"There's a lot of interesting research in neuroscience now to suggest that meditation can help with chronic pain," says Dr. Patricia Bloom, an associate professor of geriatrics and director of integrated health programs for the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. "It varies, but in a lot of cases you may be able to reduce, or be able to stop using, pain medication."
The ways in which pain affects your brain are just beginning to be explored, Bloom says. "When you have acute pain, you actually develop neurocircuits in the brain that create that pain perception," she explains. Meditation, for example, has been shown to strengthen other areas of the brain that then tend to downgrade that pain circuitry.
So can breathing make you hurt less?
"People report that meditation doesn't necessarily take away pain, but it changes their perception of it, so it bothers them less," says Dr. Bloom. "They lose a lot of that fear and stress that makes pain worse. They might still have the pain—but it seems much less painful."
Here’s how to add deep breathing and meditation to your pain management arsenal:
Choose a meditation space. Setting aside a particular spot to work on your breathing can sharpen your focus on the task at hand, "so when you go there, your mind clicks into that mode," Bloom says. A favorite chair or comfortable cushion away from everyday distractions is a good starting point.
Don't try to make it disappear. "Instead of a fear response—where you would contract your muscles or turn away from the pain—think of just being with the pain a little bit," Bloom says. Slowly breathe into the pain, in and out, almost with a sense of turning towards it, she says, to create a relaxed state.
Slow yourself down. Deliberate, conscious breathing—instead of the unconscious breathing we do all day, or the short, anxious breaths we take when we’re upset—is what meditation is all about. "It's unique to each individual, but in general five or six breaths a minute is what seems to stimulate that 'rest and restore' response," says Bloom. Five minutes is a good length of time to shoot for. (Try this simple, 5-Minute Meditation.)
Seek support. Treating pain with meditation is still a fairly new practice, and many doctors won't think to suggest it, says Bloom. It's best to learn meditation techniques through a class; you can find ones near you through the Center For Mindfulness site. Or check your local library for easy-to-follow meditation DVDs.